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Novelist Kevin Kwan: ‘Health Is Wealth’

Bestselling ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ author talks turning 50, prioritizing health, writing new novel

spinner image Kevin Kwan against yellow ombre background
AARP (GC Images/Getty Images)

Author Kevin Kwan grew up hearing his grandmother’s stories about his family’s prominent status as Singapore socialites. Those stories served as the backdrop for Crazy Rich Asians, which was adapted into the hit 2018 Hollywood rom-com of the same name. His latest novel, Lies and Weddings, promises to thrill readers with another globe-trotting tale of love, money, murder, sex and lies. Kwan, 50, shares with AARP how his childhood and family life influence his writing, how he’s working to prioritize his health and why he looks to his 84-year-old mother for inspiration.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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How has your family’s life experience shaped your writing?

I grew up in a multigenerational household, with my grandparents and my parents, in Singapore. My grandmother was such a beautiful repository of history. When you’re 8 years old, you’re not really paying attention, but she did constantly tell these stories and remind us of how proud we should be of our heritage and this and that. That was what she was focused on. My dad never said anything. My dad was always a very, very quiet man. But I knew that he had lived this life — in his early days — in a world that no longer existed.

You moved from Singapore to suburban Houston when you were 11. What was that move like?

It was complete culture shock. I benefited from the final last drippings of that old world. I didn’t realize how privileged I was as a kid because how would you know? I grew up with nannies. They dressed me for school every morning. Literally, I didn’t know any better. We ended up in Houston, and I remember the first day of school, I was like, What do I do?

How were the other kids to you?

It was really so lovely. By third period I had a whole new bunch of friends. It was this enchanted time. It was 1985. Also because we were in Clear Lake [Texas], where NASA was, I went to school with the kids of astronauts and astrophysicists, and it was a very educated international crowd already. Also speaking English helps a ton — coming from an English-speaking family immediately catapults you to being able to communicate.

What’s the first book you ever read and loved?

This is a very easy question, because my aunt gave it to me. It was called The Wishing-Chair by Enid Blyton. She was a beloved British children’s author who wrote hundreds of books. But this was purely a little kid’s fantasy book about a little boy and girl that had this magical chair. And if they poured a magic potion on the chair’s legs, these wings would sprout. It would take them on all these adventures in this sort of other world of cool children and magic. And there’s always a lot of food. You always heard about what these kids were eating: the beautiful desserts and cakes and parties and scones and tea. They always left me hungry, and I always feel like I need to pay that forward to my readers — leave them hungry.

spinner image Book that says Lies and Weddings, Kevin Kwan, New York Times Bestselling Author of Crazy Rich Asians; illustration of bride and groom in front of volcano
Kwan's latest book, "Lies and Weddings," promises to deliver a thrilling tale of love, money, murder and sex.
Courtesy Doubleday Books

What’s on your reading pile now?

I just finished Plum Sykes’ book Wives Like Us. I tend to read a lot of British authors. It’s hilarious. It’s really very different from my book, but she’s also looking at these sort of aristocratic British circles, but it’s kind of like Desperate Housewives circles. I love good satire. There’s another book that’s not out yet called Tehrangeles [out June 11]. It’s about a bunch of Beverly Hills Persians and how they endure the [pandemic] lockdown. Once again, satire, but an interesting look at a culture that hasn’t been written that much about here in the West.

If you could have a dinner party and invite three people — living or dead — who would you invite?

Oh gosh. I would love to invite my grandparents that I grew up with — my grandfather, my grandmother on my dad’s side that I knew and loved but really never got to know as an adult. It would be them and the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Do you think they’d get along?

I think they would. My grandfather was actually knighted by the queen, but he was such a modest person that he initially refused it. [Arthur P.C. Kwan  was an ophthalmologist who was knighted for his philanthropic work.] He said, “No, no, no, no, I don’t deserve this honor. I don’t care much for this.” He was initially just very modest and politely dismissive. And then they said, “Well, you can’t really say no to the queen. It’s not part of the protocol. You have to accept it.” And so he graciously did, but he did not end up going to Buckingham Palace. He felt like he couldn’t do that. And so they never actually met. So now they would in this dream dinner party.

You turned 50 last year. How did you celebrate?

I had a very small, intimate little dinner with my mom and my brother. We were in Hong Kong, visiting another relative who’s not doing very well. So we wanted to make a trip together to see an aunt of ours, and it just so happened that I turned 50 there, and it was very, very low key. I’m not big on birthdays. I just think age really is just a number.

spinner image Awkwafina, Nico Santos and Constance Wu in a still from Crazy Rich Asians
Awkwafina, Nico Santos and Constance Wu star in the 2018 movie "Crazy Rich Asians," based on Kwan's bestselling book.
Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Now that you’re 50, have you changed how you prioritize your health?

It’s not really about turning 50, but it’s more the past two years of my life. Writing this book really took it out of me. I was expecting to write a much shorter book, and it turned out to be the longest book I’ve ever written. Long but hopefully fun. It just became a whole different beast, and when you’re sitting sedentary 12 hours a day at a table, stuff happens. And so I realized this book in a very real way proved to compromise my health. And so I’m trying to get healthy again.

What are you doing to get healthy?

I’m walking a lot more, number one. And I see this lovely doctor who’s putting [me on] all these amazing supplements. I’m doing that for the first time in my life. I feel like — and my mother has always said this — health is wealth. She is so healthy and vibrant as an 84-year-old. I’m trying to follow her example. You have to invest in your health from a very early age. I haven’t been so good about that the past few years, so I’m making up for that and trying to put in the time and the work because you can’t say, “I don’t have time anymore.” At a certain point, the switch flips and you have to say, “No, this is part of my time. And this is important so I can keep living that amazing quality of life that I hope to have.” If I’m lucky enough, I will have that. My mother’s been a piano teacher for 60 years now, and she still has over 30 students. She teaches 30 hours a week. I see how living this very vital life keeps her healthy.

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